Licensed to deceive

The rollout has enabled us to capture a number of learnings … and include such things as appropriate dimensioning of services.

NBNCo spokeswoman, Weekend Australian, 27 November, 2010 

If you can’t trust government-employed media people to tell the truth, or at least give a straight answer to a question, then who can you trust? The above quote was in response to the failure of the newly laid Tasmanian section of the NBN to deliver the promised 100 Mbps on the greatest technological challenge of our era, the national broadband. The Tasmanian rollout could only deliver 30Mbps. Apparently the $43 billion technology “got choked” crossing Bass Straight. 

It is not as though the public wouldn’t accept that there will be some problems with a Government controlled venture. We’ve come to expect things like houses burning down with inflammable pink batts and, say, prices doubling and trebling for school halls and tuckshops. What’s a billion or so here or there? No, what is so troubling is the failure of graduates from the nation’s media-studies courses, from our colleges and universities, and experienced journalists and old-hand press types…well…to stop telling porkies. 

If these media people were employed and paid by political parties, you’d expect all the media-releases to be put through a sort of a Hollowmen refinement process — stretched, shrunk, twisted, bleached, deactivated and distilled into the essence-of-nonsense like the above quote. But these people are not employed by political parties in the main. They are public servants paid by government departments or government quangos and as such you would expect that their work-ethic and employment obligations would come under various public-service regulations and Acts of Parliament.

Is telling the truth in a clear and unambiguous manner a requirement for employment in our state and federal governments, or are taxpayer funded media-persons “licensed to deceive”? 

The newly defeated/re-elected Brumby government had/has nearly 1000 media “advisors” working away at dissembling information, controlling news announcements and spinning away for the greater good of their ministers and their government departments. The Liberal Party members, in opposition, have had just four media advisors. 

According to extensive research done by Peter Rolfe and Simon Kearney for the Herald Sun newspaper, and published last month, the Brumby government employed 822 media advisors, communications experts and PR types, all engaged to get the good-government messages out to the public. The State Opposition in Victoria claims that the figure is as high as 964. Apparently the Brumby government, when asked, spun the figure at 72. So even when asked a simple question like “how many”, the political spin-meisters couldn’t even be truthful about that! In fact the Brumby government spends $70 million on public mind-control each year. 

The Herald Sun article identified 3000 media advisors employed by Australian governments at the cost an estimated quarter of a billion dollars each year. The Victorian Liberal David Davis claimed that “John Brumby has built the biggest propaganda unit outside North Korea.” 

So what exactly are these 3000 nation-wide spin-doctors doing? Clearly the best description is from the above quote — propaganda. Propaganda is possibly best described as slippery attempts at manipulating information to influence the attitude of a community towards some cause, belief or position. It includes lying by omission, avoiding impartial presentation of information and the manipulation of messages and propositions to produce an emotional rather than a rational response. 

In their 1982 book Propaganda and Persuasion, Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell identified propaganda in these terms: 

Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.  

One of the great challenges for the 21st century mind is to firstly identify, then challenge, propaganda when it is presented. Viewers of ABC’s The Gruen Transfer will be aware of the panellists (the advertising types) who quite openly justify the tricks and devices used by their industry. Many people are equipped to sniff out advertising tricks and have an inbuilt mental protection against advertising propaganda — many have not. Equally most people have a way of smelling a rat when it comes to political messages and sharp practice of some politicians and government ministers when it comes to being truthful. In these instances we expect to be conned and are on the alert for the spin. 

But surely when it comes to government-employed public servants, the media spokesman or spokeswoman, there is an expectation for a lack of deception — a refusal to condone “the big lie”. Engaging in disinformation, half truths, news-management, obfuscation, repetition, oversimplification and deceit seems an odd, if not an illegal way for government employees to behave. 

We expect politicians to behave like politicians and accept the cut and thrust of political comment and verbal combat, but when the game involves public servants engaging in these activities — to the extent of 3000 media advisors and PR managers — all employed to sell the government line, then the game has changed considerably. 

When Dr Joseph Goebbels set up in the Leopold Palace the Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda and set about hunting for “the soul of the people” the world became aware of the destructive power of propaganda. 

Perhaps it’s time to remind the new practitioners of the dark art, the history of propaganda. 

Or should that be “the appropriate dimensioning of information”. Help!

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